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5 Ways to Beat the No. 1 Cause of Death

Graphic representation of arteries

If you think heart attacks and strokes only happen to "old" people, you're behind the times.

Younger Americans – men and women – can and do have heart attacks and strokes. Consider these stats:

  • Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for both men (especially those 45-54, and 65+) and women (ages 65+).
  • In women age 29 to 45, heart disease and stroke are on the rise.
  • For men and women age 35 to 44, the rate of ischemic stroke has increased.

"Physicians are using advanced diagnostic tools to evaluate symptoms in younger people. So we are seeing people diagnosed at a younger age with blocked arteries," said CHI Health Cardiologist Atul Ramachandran, MD. "It can be due in part to changes in how active we are and increased obesity. Also, some people are still smoking, and diabetes is on the rise, so there are a lot of different factors."

When you think about heart disease, you might not realize that you need to keep your blood vessels healthy. That's because the most common cause of heart disease is atherosclerosis, or fatty deposits on your blood vessel walls.

When deposits rupture and stimulate clot formation this can cause a stroke or heart attack.

You can start now to prevent heart attack and stroke by reducing the damage that's done to vessel walls and preventing those deposits from building up. "You can take preventative measures as early as your 20s," Dr. Ramachandran said. "Earlier is better, because if you have a heart attack in your 50s, the problem has been going on for 20 years." Key steps, and why they matter:

1. Quit smoking

Chemicals in tobacco smoke harm blood cells and damage the structure and function of blood vessels. "Also, don't vape," said Dr. Ramachandran. "You aren't doing anything better for your body and you may be potentially causing more harm."

2. Control high blood pressure

High blood pressure damages and weakens your brain's blood vessels, causing them to narrow, which increases the chance of blood clots forming and causing a stroke.

3. Control diabetes

Consistently high blood sugars lead to damage to the inner linings of arteries.

4. Eat a healthy diet

Reducing saturated and trans fats in your diet reduces the buildup of plaques in your arteries.

5. Get regular exercise

Regular exercise sends 10 times the normal volume of blood to muscles and strains the heart's arteries and muscles. The resulting stress causes stem cells to be dispatched to relieve the stress and build new blood vessels that strengthen muscles. 

"When people over age 40 start an exercise program, we recommend that you do a stress test to look for heart disease and blockages," Dr. Ramanchandran said. "If there's a family history of heart problems, get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked in your 20s to determine if the levels are elevated and require treatment. If you don't have a family history, your 30s is a reasonable time to get your cholesterol and blood pressure checked."

Atul A. Ramachandran, MD